Sure, Evangelical Numbers are Steady… But at What Cost?

The Christian Post recently published an article by Kevin Shrum which claimed the Church is not solely to blame for recent declines in Christian religious affiliation or church attendance. That decline, he argues, must be understood in light of “the motives of the unchurched and unbelieving.” What we are witnessing, according to Shrum, is a thinning of the orthodox herd, a separation of the men from the boys, so to speak. Real Christians, those committed to the “narrow way” of “holy living,” will remain in the Church, while the closet “Nones” will continue to drop off.

Daniel Schultz wrote a cogent response to Shrum, claiming his emphasis on orthodoxy and personal holiness may eventually backfire in an increasingly pluralist, spiritual-but-not-religious nation like our own. Those who eschew Shrum’s “narrow way,” explains Schultz, do so not out of some rebellious response to a pure Gospel. Some have already written off Christian faith as a necessarily exclusivist belief system. Those that haven’t simply crave a less divisive, more socially engaged faith. They’re tired of Culture War posturing and are now seeking out faith communities that practice less exclusionary forms of Christianity.

Schultz’s point of view has been corroborated by ample social scientific research. Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campell reached the same conclusion in their landmark 2010 study.

Yet, if more Americans are coming to dislike this holiness-heavy brand of evangelicalism, how do we explain that tradition’s uniquely steady rates of participation and affiliation? Virtually all other Christian traditions have witnessed precipitous declines in recent years. Why not evangelicals?

Schultz offers a generational explanation:

Conservative churches do fare better these days than liberal ones, though the sociologists tell me that’s mostly the result of their later adoption of birth control. The cultural trends are the cultural trends, even if they do take longer to catch up with some groups than others.

This dynamic may be at play here; in fact, I’d be surprised if it weren’t.

However, it’s only one among many possible explanations, many of which may in fact coexist. Could there also be something about evangelicalism’s theological rigidity that, in itself, attracts believers in pluralistic environments?

I believe there is.

In 1995, Christian Smith’s American Evangelicalism turned the conventional social scientific wisdom on its head with regard to this question. Far from withering in the face of modernity’s liberalizing encroachments, evangelicalism continues to thrive precisely because of its (perceived) embattlement against trends like those described by Shrum. This sense of embattlement, argues Smith, “strengthens in-group identity, solidarity, resource mobilization, and membership retention.” It accentuates that elusive—and for evangelicals, necessary—line between “us” and “them.”

I agree with Schultz in thinking that this strategy, while successful in promoting a sense of solidarity and belonging among existing evangelicals, will likely end up alienating wide swaths of the unchurched and unbelieving, the very people evangelicals claim to have in their evangelistic crosshairs. Telling people with legitimate grievances against the Church that it’s their fault they don’t want to go to Church can only lead to more people leaving the Church!

Moreover, the Gospels pretty clearly teach that “othering” religious outsiders is not the way Christians are meant to relate to their neighbors, something Daniel Kirk convincingly argued in a recent post. He calls readers’ attention to Jesus’ command to let our lights so shine before people so that they will see our good deeds and glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

“Do you see what Jesus did there?” Kirk writes. “He put the judgment of our works, as the people of God, into the hands of the outsiders. It’s we who are to shine, and the people of the world who are to see the light and recognize it as such.”

Yet, when people encounter the “us” versus “them” mentality employed by Shrum’s ilk, rarely—if ever—do they see it as “light.” This fact is belied by the very trend Shrum set out to address: people leaving the Church, and doing so in droves. For this reason alone, it should be abandoned.

However, we must continue to ask why this strategy—one that, in Shrum’s case, pits the faithful few against a consumerist majority—continues to rear its ugly head. Is it a purely generational phenomenon, or does it offer some kind of social-psychological comfort to its practitioners? My sense is that both factors are at work, although we should be careful not to forget the latter.

If we assume the phenomenon is largely generational, then those looking to affect change within the evangelical camp need only wait until the oppositional strategy falls out of fashion. If, however, there are other, social-psychological reasons for believers to adopt approaches like Shrum’s, we may be waiting for a long while.

More broadly, articles like Shrum’s are further evidence of the fact that evangelicals need to conduct some serious self-examination on these questions. They must ask themselves whether this oppositional mentality comprises a core component of who they are. In other words, if they were to drop the discourse of “us” versus “them” altogether, would they cease to be evangelicals at all? Moreover, without such vigilant policing of theological and social boundaries, would their movement “lose its identity and purpose and grow languid and aimless?”

In addition to alienating a large numbers of millennials, evangelicals’ boundary policing has led to the ousting of numerous talented scholars from their institutions of higher learning. Fuller’s Daniel Kirk, Eastern University’s Peter Enns (formerly at Westminster Theological Seminary), and Northwest Nazarene University’s Thomas Oord come to mind.

The “us” versus “them” disposition clearly benefits evangelicals in a variety of ways. Individual believers may take comfort in the ability to easily identify one of “us” in an increasingly diverse society, political leaders can use it to mobilize the powerful white evangelical voting bloc, and of course it does seem to, for the time being at least, keep church attendance from going the way of the Mainline.

But at what cost? What negative consequences emerge as a result of viewing the world through this lens? Who are they leaving in their wake? These are the questions Evangelicals ought to be wrestling with at least as earnestly as questions of affiliation and attendance.